What we pray for reveals our hearts’ priorities. The content of our prayers is an indication of where our treasure is. This is why I have been convicted during this past year about how little I pray for others in comparison to how much I pray for myself. It is not that I fail to pray for others; I do, but often I skim over those prayer requests before focusing on the real important issue: my needs. That the majority of my prayer is self-focused reveals that my attitude is largely self-focused. Praying for others is a means God uses to direct our naturally inward focus toward others.
The Apostle Paul’s Model of Prayer
In Colossians 1:9-12, we see a glimpse of the apostle Paul’s pastoral heart for others. He tells the Colossians how regularly he prays for them, and his practice of prayer for others is a model for us. We see two aspects of his prayer for others.
1. What he prays for them: “…since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God…” (1:9). He continually prays for them. His prayer for others is not a cursory task that he dutiful breezes through during morning devotions. Prayer for others is an ongoing activity that is intentional and continual. 1 Thess. 5:17 commands: “Pray continually.” Here, Paul models obedience to that command. This type of continual prayer springs from a deep love and concern for others.
2. When he prays for them: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will” (1:9). He prays for their spiritual growth. The Colossians’ relationship with the Lord is foremost on his heart. He wants them to know God’s will so that they “may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every good way” (1:10). This pastor’s heart deeply desires that they walk closely with the Lord. At the end of this chapter, Paul says he labors to “present everyone fully mature in Christ” (1:28). He also says of the Colossians, “I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is” (2:5). These statements show his heart’s pulsating passion to help others mature in Christ. Since prayer reveals our priorities, Paul’s prayers show what he deems important: maturity in Christ. Above pressing needs of circumstances, health, or finances, he prays for their spiritual health.
Cultivating a Life of Prayer for Others
How can we develop a life of continual prayer for others focused on their spiritual growth? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Actively strengthen your own walk with the Lord. People who are disinterested in their own spiritual growth will not be concerned about the growth of others. A lack of concern for others’ spiritual growth can indicate a spiritual apathy within oneself. At times when I have been half-hearted about pleasing the Lord myself, I have found it difficult to have that concern for others.
2. Be connected to a biblical community. It is unlikely that we will pray for other believers if we are not regularly spending time with them. Being connected to a biblical community breeds a desire to be involved in the lives of others, but disconnect from the body of Christ pulls us inward and away from the needs of others. Spending time together in worship, Bible study, service, and just hanging out has a way of drawing us together and helping us be concerned for each other.
3. Be attentive to the needs of others. If you are connected to a biblical community, do not remain aloof about what is happening in the lives of others. If your small group has a time for sharing prayer requests, make sure to listen attentively and empathetically. Be sure to follow up with those who share prayer requests and ask how they are doing so that you stay informed of the situation.
4. Find ways to remember those needs throughout the week. It is easy to completely forget about others’ needs when life gets busy during the week. Find a way to consciously remember what your brothers and sisters are going through. Write down prayer requests and put them on your dinner table. Tape them to the mirror in your bathroom. Keep a notecard in your pocket with them written down. A man at my church often asks me how he can pray for me and then writes down what I say in a notebook as I am talking to him. How encouraging and convicting this is for me – encouraging because I know he sincerely wants to pray for me, and convicting because I so rarely show the same attentiveness to pray for others.
5. Prioritize others’ spiritual growth when praying for them. There is certainly nothing wrong with praying for someone’s health or financial situation to improve. Yet I believe that Col. 1:9-12 indicates we should actively pray for the spiritual growth of others, regardless of what happens in their circumstances. Every situation a person experiences is an opportunity to grow closer to the Lord, as the Apostle Paul himself did when God refused to change his circumstances by removing his thorn in the flesh. The purpose of those circumstances was that Paul would experience God more deeply through them (2 Cor. 12:9-10). We do not know what God’s will is with regard to specific circumstances in a person’s life. But we always know that His will is for them to mature and grow closer to Him through those circumstances. Ultimately, it is more important that a person grow closer to the Lord than for their circumstances to change immediately. Whenever we pray for a person to grow closer to the Lord, we can be confident that our request reflects God’s priorities.